Griffin Poyck was a young boy the first time he recalled a video game piquing his interest.

“My neighbor had a game from the Sonic the Hedgehog series and I was enamored with it,” he said. “I asked my parents about it, got something for Christmas and I’ve been playing ever since.”

Robert Burnside and Griffin Poyck, former president and current president of Clemson Esports, visit with faculty and staff at Clemson

Robert Burnside (middle) and Griffin Poyck (right) have seen the Clemson Esports Club grow to unprecedented heights in recent years.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

What began as a relatively innocent discovery transformed into a hobby and later a passion in life. Today, Poyck finds himself in charge of the Clemson Esports Club, one of the largest student organizations on the university’s campus.

A senior computer science major, Poyck assumed the role of club president in the summer of 2019 from Robert Burnside, who served in the same capacity the previous three academic years.

Hundreds of students visited the club’s information exhibit during the most recent TigerProwl, an annual club and organization fair held each August designed to recruit new members. Poyck oversees the strategic direction of a club that now boasts more than 350 members.

But one of Clemson’s fastest growing groups hasn’t always been this popular. In fact, its beginnings can best be described as humble.

“It started as the League of Legends Club, because at the time it was one of the only games that included a tournament setting for college students,” said Leland Fecher, senior lecturer within Clemson’s Department of Communication and academic advisor for the esports club. “From there, it simply grew and grew, adding more games as the esports scene become more substantial.”

In many ways, the growth of Clemson Esports slowly mirrored that of a larger, nationwide trend. In 2014, Robert Morris University became the first institution to announce a scholarship-based varsity esports program. Now, nearly 200 schools across the country are offering scholarship support to aspiring professional “gamers” through the National Association of College Esports (NACE). Several schools from South Carolina — Coker, Limestone, Newberry, USC Sumter and Winthrop — have begun varsity programs.

Just recently, Ohio State University — one of the nation’s largest public institutions with an enrollment of 60,000 students — announced the launch of an esports and games studies undergraduate degree program for Fall 2020.

Guo Freeman — an assistant professor in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences and research expert in the gaming industry — attributed the club’s growth to a number of different factors.

“We have witnessed the increasing popularity of esports through competition and events that attract up to millions of participants and spectators worldwide,” she said. “I believe three factors contribute to such incredible growth: constantly evolving gaming genres, growing participation through live video streaming and its pervasion into the youth culture.

“Now, at universities like Clemson, esports clubs have become important mechanisms through which college students socialize, hang out and make friends.”

Members of the Esports Club celebrate a 2016 AVGL Dreamhack Overwatch College Grudge Match win in Atlanta in 2016. Pictured are (L-R) Burnside, Poyck, Alexzander Stone, Keegan Wade, David Prince and Stanley Cheng.

Members of the Esports Club celebrate a 2016 AVGL Dreamhack Overwatch College Grudge Match win in Atlanta. Pictured are (L-R) Burnside, Poyck, Alexzander Stone, Keegan Wade, David Prince and Stanley Cheng.
Image Credit: Clemson Esports Club

Both Burnside and Poyck cited the socialization aspect of esports and the positive impact it’s had on their Clemson experiences. Burnside, a Columbia, South Carolina native whose grandfather also attended Clemson, was one of only 12 students in the club his freshman year. He admitted it’s “crazy” to see the number of people supporting its presence at Clemson and similar universities.

“I didn’t know Clemson had an esports club before I applied,” Burnside said. “I believe these types of clubs and the support that’s growing nationally has really legitimized it for a lot of people.”

Poyck wasn’t necessarily looking at the entirety of esports when he enrolled. His original interest was the Smash Club, which was geared specifically toward fans of the Nintendo-based fighting game Super Smash Bros.

“I had some friends interested in the esports club, so I signed up and fell in love with the community,” he said. “A lot of the people I’ve met at Clemson have been through the club, either by playing with them or through the social experience. There are a lot of parallels between traditional sports and esports when you are in that team environment.”

Poyck is the son of two Clemson alumnae and is minoring in digital production arts, citing an affinity for animation and architects who help create mock-ups used in video games. In addition to presidential duties, he’s found time on the side to work as an assistant in the Michelin Career Center, editing informative videos on the center’s extensive options available to students.

Burnside formerly worked with Todd Green’s video technology department for Clemson’s nationally-renowned football program. As a freshman, he was introduced to the popular game Overwatch, which pairs players together on a team to secure and defend control points on a map in a limited amount of time. Overwatch reported more than $1 billion in revenue during the first year of its release.

Clemson club members have found success not only in Overwatch, but also in popular games such as Fortnite, Hearthstone and Rocket League, among others. They take part in gaming competitions across the region through the American Video Game League (AVGL), Collegiate Starleague (CSL) and Tespa, and at large digital festivals such as DreamHack and MomoCon in Atlanta. In addition to club dues, student government is able to provide financial support through its funding board.

Members of the Clemson Esports Club at Dreamhack Atlanta in November 2019

Burnside (middle, in white hat) with current members of the Clemson Esports Club at Dreamhack in November 2019.
Image Credit: Clemson Esports Club

The games are just as popular among spectators. Twitch is a live video streaming service that broadcasts esports competitions. By May 2018, the service had 15 million daily active users. Back home, club members who aren’t traveling to tournaments gather for watch parties in university spaces such as McAdams Hall or Hendrix Student Center. But space is at a premium.

“We know eventually we’d like to have a space dedicated for the club,” Poyck said. “But the bigger need is scholarship support, which facilitates greater competition. Players are balancing school in addition to practice and game time.”

The ones doing the balancing are also excelling in the classroom. Burnside said historically the club has been overwhelmingly comprised by students majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The Overwatch team he captained had an average GPA of 3.7.

In 2018, Burnside was featured in a documentary entitled “Heroes of the Dorm,” produced by Raycom Sports. After graduating with a marketing degree from Clemson in May 2019, he was contracted to work as an ambassador for DreamHack. He organized and coordinated outreach efforts for influencers, professional players and personalities to drive show awareness for the Atlanta-based event, held Nov. 15-17 at the Georgia World Congress Center.

Like Burnside, many students see esports as a potential professional opportunity following their graduation from Clemson.

“Students now realize that gaming and streaming, as well as professional play, is a legitimate career option,” Fecher said. “Having a club that has connections to jump-start that career simply makes sense to our students.”